The Discovery Channel’s Africa

Plying potential audiences with expansive vistas, mystery, exotic landscapes, and ancient holdovers are time worn formulas when presenting Africa to Western audiences.

Photo by Discovery Channel / BBC. PR for "Africa" series.

The U.S. TV network, Discovery Channel, and the BBC have joined forces to produce a new seven part series entitled, Africa. The series is four years in the making and brings together stunning footage of the landscapes and animals within the continent. The first episode focuses on the Kalahari Desert, while later ones will capture the wildlife in others regions spread throughout Southern, Central, Eastern and Northern Africa, with later episodes titled (you’ve guessed it), “the Congo”, “the Cape” and “the Sahara.”

The narrative style of the series is both informal and informative. The series is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who is a kind of institution in this kind of programming. Attenborough provides a laid back voice as he projects the thoughts of the animals. For example, when he narrates the leopard contemplating a warthog for lunch, it’s a “bad idea,” and then the camera pans to the leopard looking for an easier target for its lunch. The soundtrack and narration allow us to identify more easily with the film, and both instill tension, wonder, and relief in the small triumphs and battles played out among the animals. Though most of the drama created between animal encounters is welcome, it is sometimes overwrought (already some viewers have accused the show of manipulating them), as demonstrated with this line, “In the Kalahari, you have to take your food wherever you can get it, even if that means becoming a cannibal.” (This was regarding armored crickets eating an injured fellow.) The statement makes it seem that insects devouring each other is more pronounced here than in any other environment, which isn’t so.

Even while the series seeks to make you feel as if you are becoming more intimately connected to the wild, it also tries to create a distance, invoke an alienness and instill an ancientness to the region. This tactic is perhaps best borne out in the intro to the series. The logo AFRICA flashes across a globe in what looks like the start of a movie trailer about an otherworldly encounter. In the first episode, “the Kalahari,” Attenborough describes the mountains and deep valleys surrounding the desert as, “land buckled and scarred by a volcano,” that boasts the “oldest piece of crust on the planet.” Or when it comes to the underground fossil aquifer, caves, and the fish that swim beneath the desert, it all “may sound like science fiction.” The film even ventures into “local myth” to describe the phenomenon behind what are termed “fairy circles” before providing us with the scientists’ best guesses, which are still just guesses.

But plying potential audiences with expansive vistas, mystery, exotic landscapes, and ancient holdovers is what seems to be the time worn formula when presenting Western audiences with most things African. It will be very interesting to see what Discovery and the BBC do with the last two episodes, the “Making Of Africa” and one that will tackle the future of Africa’s wildlife. As, in their words, “the greatest and most iconic wildlife continent is at a tipping point. The animals of the next generation will face very different challenges than the ones met by their ancestors—and the animals themselves must adapt to the new landscape and changing relationship with humans.” Despite this description seemingly able to apply to the entire world, the series creators seem most eager to save the animals of Africa. But perhaps this is most natural, I’m sure their jobs depend on it.

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